In the United States student performance is big news, and with the release of his new book - Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World - Mitchell Professorial Fellow Yong Zhao has positioned himself at the cutting edge of education thinking across the Pacific.

In an illuminating article in the latest New York Review of Books, respected Research Professor of Education at New York University Diane Ravitch contextualises Yong Zhao's research. She spells out how successive US administrations have wrung their hands over the 'mediocre' standing of American students in global assessments, in contrast to Shanghai students which top the table in the three areas of reading, mathematics and science.

US Presidents, from Reagan to Obama, have sought to drive up American student performance in these tests by instituting standards-based assessment regimes, including the 'No Child Left Behind' law introduced by President Bush in 2002, but with little success.

Rather than looking to China for answers, Ravitch instead recommends policymakers read the analysis of Yong Zhao, Director of Institute of Global and Online Education, College of Education, University of Oregon. Ravitch explains:

He tells us that China has the best education system because it can produce the highest test scores. But, he says, it has the worst education system in the world because those test scores are purchased by sacrificing creativity, divergent thinking, originality, and individualism. The imposition of standardized tests by central authorities, he argues, is a victory for authoritarianism. His book is a timely warning that we should not seek to emulate Shanghai, whose scores reflect a Confucian tradition of rote learning that is thousands of years old.

Ravitch also writes that Yong Zhao is one of the few researchers unpicking the myths around Shanghai 'super schools'. In his book, Zhao demonstrates why the US and other countries should take new approach to education policy reform, and not emulate the Shanghai model. Ravitch again:

Zhao believes that the two major changes that should shape education policy are globalization and technology. Students need to understand the world that they will live in and master technology. Repelled by test-based accountability, standardization, and authoritarianism, he advocates for the autonomy of well-prepared teachers and the individual development of their students.

In Australia, there has also been much soul-searching about how we stack up against the top performing countries in PISA and other global rankings. Yong Zhao's new book will provide important insights for Australian policymakers too.

You can read Diane Ravitch’s full article "The Myth of Chinese Super Schools" in the New York Review of Books.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World by Yong Zhao is published by Jossey-Bass.

Feature image by Renato Ganoza, Flickr Commons